In most regions of the United States, baseball in 2014 is already underway. For those in the northern part of the country, however, snow from an unusually harsh winter is finally receding to reveal fields of grass that haven’t seen adequate sunlight in months.
The snow and cold weather put a strain not only on the grass, but on its keepers as well. With Richmond County Bank Ballpark hosting a slate of high school and college games beginning in April, new Staten Island Yankees head groundskeeper Bill Butler knows he has his work cut out for him. A 24-year professional baseball field master, Butler has plenty experience handling this sort of obstacle. “The biggest thing we have to wait for in this area of the country is the grass because of the temperatures,” Butler said. “The grass doesn’t start growing until the soil is 55 degrees, and on most years, that happens the last week of March or first week of April. Right now, we’re nearing the last week of March and the soil temperature is only in the 30s, so the grass is really behind, and you can’t force that.”
Despite the frigid soil temperatures, the preparation of the field in Staten Island is in full swing. The recent melting of snow has allowed the grounds crew to attack the dirt portions of the park, including the bullpen mounds, home plate area and infield. Looming on deck for Butler and his crew, however, is the ever-important green grass waiting to be tended to.
A veteran of more than two decades in the industry, mostly recently with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Butler has experienced both ends of the weather spectrum. The groundskeeper began his career at the Kansas City Royals’ Spring Training home in Florida, far from the New York winters. Butler also helped establish the playing field for the Atlanta Braves Single-A affiliate in Myrtle Beach, where spring begins a little earlier than in Staten Island. As with the difference in temperatures, the regional contrasts extend to type grass as well. Venturing south, you’ll find Bermuda grass at most ballparks, which is cut a lot shorter than the northern blue grass found at Richmond County Bank Ballpark.
“Down south, when it gets to the fall, you plant rye grass over the Bermuda to protect it from the winter,” said Butler. “Here, there’s not a lot you can do other than leave it a little longer so you can cut off the winter kill in the spring.”
As someone who has gained much notoriety for his field designs, grass-growing temperature is the one thing Butler is looking most forward to. During a two-year stint earlier in his career, the fieldsman was the heads groundskeeper for the New York Mets in Shea Stadium where he crafted the crowning design of his career so far. Butler cut the New York City skyline into the field’s grass.
“It was cool at the time, because you’d go home and watch SportsCenter that night and you see checkerboard, stripes, checkerboard, checkerboard, stripes, stripes, and all of a sudden, it was something a little different, and nobody had done anything like that,” said Butler.
If you think Butler’s New York City skyline design is awesome, the groundskeeper says Baby Bomber fans will be in for a treat on Opening Day as he has something special up his sleeve. But before designs and patterns can be etched into the grass, there’s still one more problem the grounds crew must take care of.
“After the snow, something that is really unique to here is the geese problem, and opposed to some other parks it is extreme,” said Butler. “I can’t control when its going to be warm enough for the grass to grow, so right now I’m just trying to get all the geese droppings off the field, then try to prevent them from coming in.”
The favorite method of goose prevention so far has been several black dog silhouette cutouts placed around the infield. The cutouts are left out to trick the potential ballpark residents into thinking there are predators roaming the outfield, making it dangerous to land. Will this remedy keep the geese away for good? Only time will tell. All we know for now is that June 13 could not come fast enough!